We rise early to get to the airport for our internal flight to Nukus, capital of the Republic of Karakalpakstan in the north west of Uzbekistan. The queuing system at the airport for the various security checks seem to work on the basis that you just push and barge to the front as soon as you are bored of standing in line. It works brilliantly as you can imagine. We eventually find ourselves on the airside and discover an Uzbek barista who makes the most wonderful cappucino. Feeling a little more fortified we board our flight. I wish I could regale you with what the landscape looks like between Tashkent and Nukus but I had a centre seat and there was a layer of cloud shutting off any chance of a glimpse of the Kyzylkum Desert.
We meet our new guide on our arrival; a friendly-faced man called Oktyabr (October). His name comes from the period of Soviet rule when the month of October had particular relevance. He is an archaeologist and proudly tells us of his work and publications. We drop our bags off at the hotel and head out to see a cemetery site called Mizdakhan. On the way we hear some of the horrors of the consequences of the Soviet draining of the Aral Sea. Where there once were forests there are now barren scrublands. Where once there was a thriving fishing industry there is now none. It’s a human caused disaster and the effects on these people and the landscape is devastating. There are efforts to replant the trees in Nukus and hope that they will survive.
We reach the cemetery and enter through the gate. The tombs spread like a sea around us and litter the slopes and crest of the hill before us. The adjacent town was founded in the 4th century BC and was inhabited until it was destroyed by Timur (14th century). The cemetery was still considered sacred so burials continued here. The grave markers are a mix of brick enclosures and metal frames that look like bedsteads. In many of the grave plots there is a ladder with seven rungs used to carry the body to the cemetery and then left to assist with the dead’s ascent to the afterlife.
We pick our way between the tombs and climb the hill. At the top there is a particularly impressive brick tomb structure and we pass through its doors and down a staircase. It’s the 12th century tomb ofMazlam Khan Slu. The terracotta brick construction is punctuated in a regimental pattern by inserts of small turqoise blue-glazed tiles with decorative reliefs on them. The colour is cooling as is the temperature as we descend further. At the foot of the stairs a domed room opens up in front of us and is warmly lit from the windows high in the dome.
We return to wending our way between the wire-framed enclosures and pass pathches of earth covered with little piles of brick fragments. The observant spot that most of the piles have 7 fragments and these offerings are left by those that make the pilgrimage to the dead. I am not normally spooked by cemeteries but the skeletal form of the bedstead enclosures, often with images of the interred hanging off the metal frame, leave me unsettled perhaps because they don’t have the permanency of stone grave markers. As we pass along the ridge the view opens up and a second hill comes into view. This hill is also densely dotted with stone and metal graves and above them rise the domes of some larger monuments.
We descend and head to the local town for lunch. The national dish of Uzbekistan is plov and I must admit I had reservations about ordering it after hearing some digestive horror stories from my mother. We are reassured by Oktyabr that the Karakalpakstan version of plov is lighter and less fatty and quite frankly far nicer. Most of the group decide that this is the plov to plump for so we order. It arrives and looks very innocent. A mound of rice cooked through with yellow pepper and a sprinkling of beef on the top. It is indeed very tasty and since this is written in retrospect I can happily report that there were no unpleasant after effects.
We head back to Nukus to the Igor Savitsky Museum which is, as I have read over and over again, ‘home to one of the finest collections of Soviet avant garden art. I don’t want to sound unappreciative but I don’t think I am a big fan of Soviet avant garde art if what I saw are considered the best examples. We amuse ourselves by trying to guess the title of the work by looking at the subject matter and soon realise that it is a case of say what you see – ‘Woman in Red Dress’, ‘Secretary Bird’, and ‘Picking Cabbages’… you get the idea.
Downstairs is an archaeology section but I have truly decided that for me, museum displays are best visited after I’ve seen the site. Looking at an array of stone, metal or ceramic objects from unfamiliar place names does little for me. Once I have seen the site and understood it in its landscape I am then ready to see the objects retrieved from it and importantly, remember them. This is probably a strange confession for an archaeologist. One object I saw in this section of the museum I will never forget though. Sitting in a cabinet with no light was the unmistakable form of a camel at rest; seated with its knees and legs in the awkward arrangement they adopt when you are about clamber onto their backs. This ceramic camel was pleasingly bulbous and its plump body was in fact a large pot, it’s hump would have formed the lid and its head arched backwards to create a handle. Reading the label it is revealed that this vessel is an ossuary. How wonderful. Being a very keen camelophile, the idea of having my bones left to rest in a camel-shaped vessel for eternity makes me smile.
We return to the hotel and I curl up on one of the large wooden sofas that is littered with cushions in the courtyard and catch up on writing the previous day’s blog.